Medieval society had reached a stagnant point in the mid 1300’s; the wealthy owned estates of land and the peasants worked on this land in return for accommodation and food to provide for their own families. Over-population and severe class divides meant that food and everyday supplies were short, there was little or no opportunity for the poor or peasants to alleviate the hold of poverty through increasing their earnings. Quality of life for the lower classes was bleak. The Black Death of 1348 - 49 threw medieval society into bedlam and broke the social and economic deadlock of the time.

As indiscriminate as disease and infection always is, the plague struck the poor, the wealthy, the clergy and the medics alike, as it moved from the Gobi Desert through Constantinople, Russia, France, Germany and England from 1320 to 1351. The Black Death caused devastation to Europe, with more fatalities than any other bio-medical disease so much so that some medieval historians believe that Europe’s population was reduced by up to 65% as a result .

With the considerable reduction of Europe’s population, radical changes to every aspect of life had to follow to ensure that those left could gather their lives together and rebuild their worlds. On the whole, medieval society coped with the aftermath and adapted to vast changes that the Black Death bought very aptly, ensuring that the necessary adjustments to everyday life were seen through. The survivors could be commended for their ability to change and move forwards in the face of adversity and disaster although it is apparent that for those left, the Black Death bought new and great opportunities for society to better itself and for the deadlock to be lifted. Medieval society did cope very well, but simply only because their lives were to change for the better, as a result of the decreased population.

Without any doubt, the Black Death disrupted every aspect of medieval life but all to differing extents.  Although all areas inter-link and have an immediate effect on the others, it is easiest to survey societies success in coping and the changes that were made by looking at the areas of: demography, sociology, economy, industry, politics, the church and medicine, individually.

The most apparent and devastating affect of the plague was on the population of Europe. The approximate rates of death as a result of the plague are augured over by historians continually although most will accept that charting even approximate rates of mortality is impossible due to inaccurate local and regional records of current population and lack of full recording of the outbreaks of plague. Most will also agree that previous estimates claiming that one-quarter of Europe’s population perished in the Black Death of 1348-9 are being overly cautious and that the plague caused greater death (45 – 65% of the population) than first thought. Historian, David Herlihy, questioned the idea that the arrival of the plague was a “Malthusian crisis trigged by excessive numbers of people”; a reckoning was inevitable as a natural reaction to the population expanding above the earths food supply.  Without wishing too look to deeply into geography-based theories of population, the arrival of the plague does seem to prove the Malthusian theory. Before the Black Death, families were starving, there was not enough food produced to feed the ever-expanding population and people were dying. Yet after the plague there was an abundance of food for all survivors and not only was there more, but better quality and range of food was available to the poorer members of society. This of course increased the health of those survivors and their ability to fight against possible future re-occurrences. Essentially, quality of life was improved with less people around. This draws back the idea that society didn’t so much ‘cope effectively’ after the plague but rather that life was made better for it’s occurrence. The plague didn’t create a new demographic system either, it simply allowed society to redistribute those left within it and work towards further development creating as little disturbance as possible,  just leaving the path open for further improvement.

Socially, the Black Death opened the doors to great change as those left strived to quickly re-establish the ‘clock-work’ running of everyday life and society and it is here that the plague caused some of its deepest changing effects. The immediate effects on society was a greatly increased number of marriages. Many had been widowed or had inherited land or money from lost relatives and so family circumstances had altered a great deal for most. People sought to restore the support of the family unit and demonstrated great ability to reform and settle after such devastation.  

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The next obvious effect was on that of the workforce and trades: there were suddenly not enough people to work both on the land to produce food, to work in the mills or to fulfill roles in skilled trades as carpentry, ironmongery and coopering. Peasants immediately recognised that a reduced workforce meant that their services were now in great demand, so much so that they were now in a far better position to negotiate the terms of their work and payment and they demanded fairer treatment and lighter burdens. Although not often given into easily, Landlords were pressed for higher wages ...

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